Monday, October 30, 2006

Senator Reed at Brookings

Senator Reed, who just returned from his 9th trip to Iraq, was over at Brookings last thursday where he made several recommendations on a future course of action in Iraq.

Here is a quick summary of those recommendations:
(1) Reining in the militias;
(2) Real reconciliation
(3) Real reconstruction;
(4) Regional strategy; and
(5) Resources

Some highlights of the speech:

On the whole “Clear, hold and build” strategy:

"…with American forces and Iraqi security forces we are pretty good at clearing and holding. Where we have persistently failed is in the building, and that has been a function, I think, not only of Iraqi capability of intention but also because from the United States perspective, we have never truly matched our military effort with a comparable civilian effort in terms of State Department personnel, AID personnel, and Justice Department personnel."

The problem is even though this idea is somewhat prevalent on the Hill and beyond, there is still no indication as to whether the White House will actually produce a shift in strategy to address the issue. Of course we have the Iraq Study Group headed by Baker readying its recommendations; One of which is likely to refer to this problem. But as Sen. Reed correctly noted, the group can only make suggestions; there is no guarantee that the president will act on them.

On whether we are “losing” or “winning”:

"I would say based on my observations that we have lost the initiative militarily and in terms of reconstruction and these efforts and that if we don’t get the initiative back within the next several months, then our position becomes increasingly untenable there. So we are not winning, but I don’t think we have lost."

So we now have to achieve in three months what we failed to in the last two and a half years. Forget for a moment whether this even possible. My misgivings are centered on our current Secretary of Defense and Vice President both of whom are likely to challenge, if not derail, programs that could potentially achieve stability.

On troop commitment:

"Much discussion recently has centered on the number of troops. I think it is easy sometimes to say, well, the solution is simple -- more troops -- but I think we have to recognize that if the Iraqi Government doesn’t make some basic political decisions, if we cannot ask them to commit their resources, if we cannot get international commitments for additional resources, and we cannot deliver these resources in a more effective way, then sending more troops will buy us some more time but it will not be decisive. If we can get the political right, if we can get the reconstruction issues correct, and if our commanders on the ground see that and sense that in the short term -- again, this has to be measured not just in number of troops but in time -- we can go ahead and at least consider a planned increase force structure. But right now, until we get the politics right, I don’t think that is the easy silver bullet for this problem."

It is nice to hear a politician actually think through an issue that has thus far been debated in absolute terms (bring them all home, keep them all there, send some more there). Reed is quite right to make political and economic reconstruction priorities, and prerequisites for any further troop deployments to Iraq. Much of the violence, regardless of how our media may construe it, is politically and economically motivated. It is not all about religion. Hell, in the south you have Shias fighting Shias. At issue is what Reed suggests we rely on to achieve this stability. The Iraqi government is quite the mess and although it is making steps towards economic development, it is tragically negligent when it comes to the state’s security. The government has gone as far as to release militants captured by its own security forces! Why? Well, unfortunately at the moment, many government ministers are beholden to the militias, as in many cases it was the militias that put them into power.

In terms of international support, the most crucial aid need come from Iraq’s neighbors and considering all that Iran and Syria are doing to undermine American efforts in Iraq, it is difficult to imagine that these two countries will begin to positively influence Iraq in the near future, let alone in the next 3 months. Sure it is possible that Iran and Syria will come around, after all they probably have more to gain from a stable Iraq, but I wouldn’t want to rely on that.

On what the government is missing in terms of nation-building capabilities:

"It might be institutional in terms of there is no department for this. Certainly, it is budgetary in terms of there don’t seem to be the funding streams, and there is not the automatic claim on funds that DOD has when you start talking about reconstruction efforts. I think the Administration pursuing a model based upon private contractors has proved very expensive and very ineffective. And so, I think we have to begin to rethink this whole approach…One of the approaches to this problem a few years ago was the Administration, at least the candidate, Governor Bush then, saying we are not going to do nation-building, so we don’t need any of this stuff. Now, we find ourselves in the most complicated nation-building we have done in a very long period of time, and we don’t have any institutional support or the budgetary support for it. Yet, I don’t think the Administration has thought how to do that."

The amount of money wasted by these private contractors is ridiculous. And should anyone really be surprised? The US government threw billions of dollars at these contractors without thinking to monitor their spending. Nations cannot be rebuilt on dollars alone, you need to have some sort of structure or strategy, otherwise you will surely get th type of reckless spending we have thus far seen. There have been several articles printed recently that refer to this issue, but I’ll include them in another post.

As an aside I found it interesting that not once during his remarks did he even utter the word “withdrawal.” Why? Simply because Reed understands that withdrawal at this stage is not a solution even worth mentioning.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

My Country, My Country

I am sure that by now many of you have heard about the documentary “My Country, My Country” that is currently airing on PBS’ POV. The film offers a glimpse into the lives of Dr. Riyahd, a candidate for the Iraqi Islamic Party, and his family in the turbulent run-up to Iraq's landmark January 2005 elections. During the eight months it took to complete the documentary, the director/camerawoman/soundwoman Laura Poitras lived alone in Iraq, threatened by kidnappings and violent attacks on a daily basis.

If you want to learn more about her experience filming in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Iraq and her thoughts on the current situation, I recommend reading the interview we recently conducted with her. Today, she also participated in an on-line discussion for the Washington Post. You can read the transcript here.

Also wanted to thank everyone that came out to our screening of “My Country, My Country” this past Monday and of course Laura for coming all the way down from New York to discuss her film with us. We hope to host like events in the near future.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Anyone hear about this?

Was reading through the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's Iraq Press Monitor section when I saw this:

Baghdad Declared an "Islamic State"
(Asharq al-Awsat) A new fundamentalist Islamic group, al-Mutayyibeen Coalition, under the leadership of al-Qaeda, has declared an "Islamic State" in Baghdad and five more governorates. It said this was in response to the setting up of Kurdish "state" in the north and Shia "federalism" in central and southern Iraq.

Apparently, this al-Qaeda linked group declared this “Islamic State” in a video posted to the internet. You’d think this would be a big news story considering the administration has specifically stated that the possibility of Al-Queda taking over Iraq is one of the greatest threats faced by Iraq, but after doing a quick scan of the major papers I came up empty. Regardless of their motivations for doing so, the newspapers are right not to attach too much importance to this development (though a brief mention wouldn’t have killed them.)

First off, who declares the creation of a state on-line? And can we really trust that a video anonymously posted on the internet is in fact authentic? Fortunately, whether the tape is authentic or not is really a moot point. Thing is, Iraqis regardless of sect, tribe or religion all seem to agree on one thing: they do not want al-Qaeda in Iraq. This has been shown time and time again in many polls, most recently in the one and is echoed almost daily in Iraqi discussions. Furthermore, regardless of who is declaring a state, most Iraqis do not favor the break-up of Iraq. It seems that most Iraqis earnestly want a more centralized government, despite what some of their top militia leaders (and some of our politicians) might say.

Monday, October 16, 2006


It really is a horrible pill to swallow, but it seems as though the numbers -655,000 civilians dead since the war began- published in the Lancet survey are accurate. EPIC has come to this conclusion after having reviewed the methodology employed by the survey with several statisticians and epidemiologists. Those who are skeptical of the survey or simply want to learn more about its methodology might want to read this excellent summary.

One group which has criticized the Lancet report is (IBC). I suppose before I go on I should mention that IBC compiles their figures using a “passive-surveillance system” meaning it simply scans newspaper articles and press statements for deaths and then adds them up. They seem to acknowledge in their faq that their numbers can only represent a sample of the deaths in Iraq as sadly not every death is reported; however, in the media their figures are represented as being the maximum number of civilian deaths.

Anyway, today the IBC, which estimates the body count at a far more conservative 50,000 released a press statement refuting the results of the Lancet survey. They go point by point, examining the implications of each finding published in the Lancet report and then explaining that given the implications, the findings cannot be accurate.

There are several things I want to draw attention to: First off, the IBC writes that the Lancet report implies that:

"Half a million death certificates were received by families which were never officially recorded as having been issued [which further implies] incompetence and/or fraud on a truly massive scale by Iraqi officials in hospitals and ministries, on a local, regional and national level, perfectly coordinated from the moment the occupation began.”

IBC does not take into account that these days you can simply report the death (usually with some confirmation) to a local police station and they will issue a death certificate. There is no need to go through the government and its ministries to receive it, so it should hardly be surprising that they do not have a record of said certificates. Odd that IBC would ignore this.

The IBC also claims that the Lancet Survey can't be right as that would mean that 1/10 of all victims of violence do not go to the hospital. Well perhaps doesn't account for the entire gap, but it has been well documented that Shiite death squads often prey on hospitals killing every Sunni in sight. In fact several Iraqis were quoted as saying they would prefer to chance death on the streets then go to a hospital where they believe it a certainty. So it is not entirely unreasonable to claim that a significant portion of Iraqis refuse hospital care when they fall sick or are wounded.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

But is it too late?

Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times brings attention to a draft of a new counter-insurgency doctrine that is to be published next month.

"The doctrine warns against some of the practices used early in the war, when the military operated without an effective counterinsurgency playbook. It cautions against overly aggressive raids and mistreatment of detainees. Instead it emphasizes the importance of safeguarding civilians and restoring essential services, and the rapid development of local security forces…The new doctrine is part of a broader effort to change the culture of a military that has long promoted the virtues of using firepower and battlefield maneuvers in swift, decisive operations against a conventional enemy."

The document also states what Bush has been loathe to concede:

"Any use of force generates a series of reactions. There may be times when an overwhelming effort is necessary to intimidate an opponent or reassure the populace. But the type and amount of force to be applied, and who wields it, should be carefully calculated by a counterinsurgent for any operation. An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if the collateral damage or the creation of blood feuds leads to the recruitment of fifty more."

Well it is about time. I cannot understand why it took this long for our military leaders to realize that strategies employed during major combat operations cannot be adopted when dealing with insurgencies or militias. I suppose it’s not too surprising considering the obstinacy of our government in regards to nearly ever other facet of the war, but I can’t even begin to imagine how many lives would have been saved and catastrophes averted, had the U.S. military adopted this doctrine to begin with.

But is it too late? Maybe I am being too cynical, but I wonder whether this shift in doctrine will have any meaningful impact. After all this is an entirely new doctrine. Won’t it take time to adequately train soldiers in it? That could take years.

I am relieved that the new doctrine explicitly states the need to build up local institutions and encourage economic development, rather than focus entirely on a military solution. It is by discreetly empowering Iraqi NGO’s, encouraging civil society initiatives and addressing the unemployment crisis that the U.S. will create the conditions necessary for it to withdraw responsibly from Iraq. We must not forget that Iraqis are the only ones that can offer effective solutions to the problems that plague them. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Maybe they got a discount

Three different Washington Post writers recently released three very interesting books that all deal to some degree with the war in Iraq. The first book by reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, exposes the ineptitude of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) during the two year period in which it governed Iraq. Chandrasekaran writes that when it came to staffing the CPA, experience was regarded as lesser qualification to loyalty.

"Many of those chosen by O'Beirne's office to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq's government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance -- but had applied for a White House job -- was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, even though they didn't have a background in accounting."

Bob Woodward’ book, State of Denial, his third on the Bush administration, claims that there was considerable disagreement within the higher ranks of the White House over how to conduct the war. So much so that at one point a it seemed no one’s job was safe.

"A second term traditionally leads to personnel changes. The question was whether one of them would involve Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Card had to approach the issue with delicacy. Iraq was the centerpiece of everything now, and the president was clearly predisposed not to do anything that would disrupt the war effort. If Rumsfeld left, what would the impact be on overall momentum and on the morale of those who were doing the fighting? Rumsfeld had a virtual monopoly on defense contacts with the president, so there was no way the president could get independent information to answer those kinds of questions."

Woodward also reveals that while in May of 2006 Bush was speaking optimistically about the progress Iraq was making, secret reports that were being circulated at the time which Bush surely saw, contradicted what he said. Woodward presented this as a major bombshell on his recent appearance on 60 Minutes; however, as I recall there were a couple of official reports that were made public at the time, that showed increasing casualties, etc. It wasn’t really a secret that the situation in Iraq was getting worse.

Karen DeYoung’s Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell covers Powell’s entire career. DeYoung recently posted an excerpt of the book detailing the immediate events leading up to Powell’s infamous U.N. presentation. The excerpt describes Powell as being at odds with the administration in many instances, but in the end his soldier’s sense of loyalty won out.

"Powell had constantly found himself on the losing side of regular ideological combat inside the Bush administration, particularly against Rumsfeld and the powerful vice president, Dick Cheney, over Iraq and a host of other foreign policy issues. Though Powell had scored some victories, the rumored humiliations had been real. He had been purposely cut out of major foreign policy decisions more than once, and his advice often had gone unheeded or been only grudgingly accepted by the president. Why hadn't he resigned? The easy answer had the virtue of truth: Soldiers didn't quit when they disagreed with the decisions of their commanders. The fact that he had been out of uniform for nearly a decade was irrelevant to Powell; he would be a soldier until he drew his last breath."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Two steps forward...

In defense of the current state of affairs in Iraq one can always claim that at least the Iraqi people are better off now than when they lived under Saddam. However, as the New York Times recently reported, not much has changed for Iraqi journalists.

As if the threat of violence from militias wasn’t enough -130 have been killed since the 2003 invasion- the Iraqi government recently enacted a new set of laws criminalizing speech that ridicules the government or its officials. These new laws, some drawn verbatim from Saddam’s penal code, have been used to charge at least a dozen Iraqi journalists in the past year. The punishment for publicly insulting a government or public official can be up to 7 years in prison. In addition to this government crackdown, dozens of journalists have been kidnapped by criminal gangs or detained by the US military.

There is some silver lining to this whole story. The article goes on to say that despite these threats, Iraqi journalists have “achieved a new level of professionalism by working closely with Western journalists …[and] have become increasingly aggressive… Despite the danger, Falah al-Mishaal, the editor of Al Sabah, the government-run newspaper in Baghdad, said he enjoyed his job now because he felt like a real journalist. ‘Now, we are free,” he said in an interview in late July. “We can write whatever we want.’” But it may just get them killed or incarcerated.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

New PIPA poll

Many of you may have already heard some of the more provocative findings of a recently released poll on Iraqi public opinion conducted by and published by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) – the most prominent being that Iraqis now favor attacks on US troops.

Yesterday at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Steven Kull, the director of PIPA and editor of, presented the results of the newly released poll. On hand to interpret these results were Kenneth Pollack and Shibley Telhami, both preeminent Middle East experts. The two noted that the polling results relay the sense that Iraqis desire a strong federal government and are confident in their government’s ability to secure the country, though Pollack feels that their surprisingly high confidence in the country’s security forces is perhaps misguided. He notes that Iraqi government leaders have recently expressed views to the contrary claiming that the support if US troops is still crucial to securing the country at this stage.

One seemingly contradictory finding is that a majority of Iraqis disdain US troops, yet they still express confidence in Iraqi security forces which, as every Iraqi knows, are trained exclusively by US troops. Mr. Telhami offered a possible explanation for this discrepancy as well as for the oft-cited increase in the number of Iraqis who approve of attacks on US troops. Simply put, after the recent Lebanese war that has been a surge of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. I’m sure this anti-American sentiment is only aggravated for Iraqis who see US troops on their streets everyday.

Positive developments found by the poll include: an overwhelming majority are opposed to al-Qaeda and bin Laden; virtually all groups disapprove of attacks on Iraqi police and civilians; and a majority of Iraqis want to get rid of militias.

Full Poll results are here
You can view the questions asked and methodology used here
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